#MakersMonday: An Interview with Pelikan Icons

My #MakersMonday guest today is an iconographer! Elina of Pelikan Icons and I have met in real life at conferences, and we’ve known each other online for years now. I’ve seen her dancing and art-journaling and book reviewing, but the craft she’s sharing today might be the crown jewel of her skills. As always, I’m asking 5 questions, and Elina is answering, with words and pictures!

Tell us about your work. What do you create?

I am an Orthodox artist, and my most important work is as a byzantine iconographer, which is what I’m mainly talking about today.  Along with digital art and various forms of art, I produce icons of all sizes in various mediums for homes and churches. Iconography is unlike any artform I have ever worked with, as it is more than just the paint and board or canvas that I am working with; it truly becomes a window to something deeper and greater, a cooperation with God and His saints.  In visual art I used to feel most fulfilled when sculpting – I love working in 3 dimensions, but in iconography the third dimension is the very real and present spiritual dimension. 

How did you learn to do this kind of work?

Ideally iconography would be learned by spending years as an apprentice to a master iconographer, but in North Carolina, that’s simply not available.

I began learning about the process of creating icons before I converted to Orthodoxy, learning from others intrigued by this ancient artform, and eventually flying to Greece to learn from a master for a few weeks while my first child was 8 months old.  I took her with me and my amazing mother in law came and spent time with her while I worked. It was an incredible trip. After converting, amid having 3 more kids to add to my 2, I was blessed with several opportunities to learn from other masters, including my most influential teacher and favorite living iconographer – Daniel Neculae.  Traditional byzantine icons are made with egg tempera on laboriously prepared icon boards, so the process is very specific and rather difficult, but intensely satisfying.

What do you find satisfying about being a maker?

Creation!!  Iconography is interesting because it is not creative in the same way as the other artforms that I do.  I’m not trying to innovate, to make something uniquely mine – quite the opposite. My goal is to take what has been handed down and reproduce it, but the process is nothing short of life-changing.  

What’s your favorite memory associated with practicing your craft?

I think my favorite memories are from the courses, where I’m spending 8+ hours working on the craft under the direction of a true master.  My first course with Daniel was strikingly different from other classes where they spent a lot of time talking – we spent more time doing. The thing that struck me was that at the end of the course, the internal change I felt was even deeper, as if the lines themselves of these holy faces were writing their way into my very person.

Share a photo of a favorite piece, and tell us the story that goes with it.

This is a difficult one, because my first impulse is to choose the icon from my first course with Daniel – of my patron saint, Archangel Gabriel – because the course was so moving, but I think I’m going to have to choose my largest work – the icon of the Theotokos hanging behind our

altar at St Raphael Orthodox Church in Fuquay Varina – my home parish.  Being asked to do the icons for my parish was a great honor, and also something very intimidating.  These are icons that I see multiple times a week, and they are the faces that surround me as I enter into worship.  This particular icon was not only my largest work, but several other firsts. It was my first time practicing marouflage, which is the technique of affixing paintings on canvas to the wall with paste.  The icon is 11 feet tall, and was primarily painted in my living room which is only 8 feet tall, so naturally it was quite a challenge. To add to that, I am not normally allowed behind the altar, so to spend the time back there when I was installing it, to be high on a ladder (I don’t love heights, tall as I may be) was memorable to say the least.  It was also my first time applying gold leaf to canvas, and to do so vertically, on a ladder, behind the altar made it even more exciting. I felt very solidly God’s help and the help of the saints (as I was constantly asking their help) as well as the prayers of my church family, and it was clearly something bigger than just me and my art, and that is really I think what makes iconography my favorite artform – the participation in the divine.  This is present every time I create, but uniquely here in the sacred work of iconography.

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